usir, by teresa garanhel

‘I remember the ocean was as flat as the ship’s deck when the masters appeared. I saw their flag, but at the time I didn’t know what it meant. You know the one, white and red. We were all so scared. I understood later it was the Cross of the Order of Christ, the Empire’s divine right to the spice trade. We were coming from India when they sunk the ship, but not before putting me and a few others in crates.’ A sigh. ‘My sarcophagus. I was reborn inside it.’

teresa garanhel

‘Can a god assume mortal flesh, walk amongst the kings and the merchants, the fisherwives and the sailors?’

Usir lifted his head at the question.

Gaspar came down the steps to the lower deck, his boots making a wet noise in the layer of grime that covered the floor. He sat down by the iron bars, seeming indifferent to the filth now stuck to his clothes. Usir was sitting inside a cell, damp from the spraying water and too small to allow him to get up. The smell of green and brine wasn’t enough to overpower the stench of his own waste.

‘Yes,’ he finally replied. ‘They see all, do all.’

‘Why?’

‘To guide and protect us.’ He shrugged as if it was obvious.

The sunlight pouring in through the porthole highlighted Gaspar’s sharp cheekbones, casting shadows underneath them. The wrinkle between his eyebrows looked more pronounced, and he had a small wound on his chin the colour of sycamore figs. The barber must have cut him again.
Usir moved closer to the bars with a rattle.

‘They won’t let me shave.’

Gaspar stretched his arm inside the cell, let his hand lay flat against the growing stubble on Usir’s head. ‘I can barely feel your hair.’

He closed his eyes at the cold touch. ‘I need it gone.’

Gaspar moved his hand away. ‘A god doesn’t need a shaved head.’

‘Don’t mock.’

‘And neither does a slave.’

Usir stared into Gaspar’s eyes. ‘I won’t be a slave long, not after they come for me.’

Gaspar pressed his lips together before speaking. ‘Tell me the rest of the story.’

‘I don’t remember where I was.’

‘Yes you do, you just don’t want to talk.’ Gaspar rested his forehead against the bars. Rust, the colour of a dust storm, fell from the metal. ‘You told me about your parents, how they were poor and sent you to work on a merchant ship.’

Usir didn’t comply immediately, choosing to stare down at his hands. He’d bitten his fingernails to the quick, when he’d been hungry in those initial days of imprisonment, but there was still dirt beneath them. His skin was stretched on top of bones and raised veins, and they put him in tighter manacles when his wrists began to slip through the loops.

‘I remember the ocean was as flat as the ship’s deck when the masters appeared. I saw their flag, but at the time I didn’t know what it meant. You know the one, white and red. We were all so scared. I understood later it was the Cross of the Order of Christ, the Empire’s divine right to the spice trade. We were coming from India when they sunk the ship, but not before putting me and a few others in crates.’ A sigh. ‘My sarcophagus. I was reborn inside it.’

‘As Mateus?’

‘No, that’s the Christian name they gave me later.’ Usir looked up briefly, as if he could see the deck above, busy with the shuffling feet of masters and slaves. ‘But we were made slaves first, then Christians. Another kind of slavery. Instead of Osiris, I now have a God who sacrificed His son so that His followers can conquer the world. The rest of the crew died so that the Empire could trade cinnamon, rosemary and turmeric.’

‘God is the only one.’ Gaspar briefly touched the gold cross around his neck. ‘You’re now closer to Paradise than you’ve ever been before.’

‘I was named after Osiris.’ Usir ignored Gaspar’s words. ‘His body was cut in fourteen parts, seven for the two regions of Egypt. I was seven when I died.’

‘You didn’t die. You’re still here.’

Usir shook his head. ‘When they finally opened the crate to let me out, the old me was shed like a moulting cicada. They sold me to a nobleman like you. A sailor. I was collared and renamed. Mateus means reward, my master said. A spoil. I’d rather be in Egypt right now, under the reign of Suleiman and his Turks, than serving pink masters with their strange religion.’

‘Yours is odd too. No one in Egypt worships the old gods anymore.’

‘So my rebirth has nothing to do with my forced baptism and conversion to Christianity. Osiris also died sealed in a box, leaded in by his brother, before resurrecting.’ A smile formed on his lips. ‘Sometimes, if I focus enough, I can almost smell the tamarind tree they encased him in.’

‘Even now?’ Gaspar’s long fingernail picked at the flaking iron.

‘I’m too empty for that.’ A cockroach scuttled out of view. ‘It took me a while to understand that these bouts of emptiness that come and go have nothing to do with being a slave. Or in a cell.’

‘You’re afraid of─’

‘I’m not like Afolabi, who chewed his wrists until he drained himself of blood. Or even like the sailors who swallow wood splinters or poison themselves with saltwater.’ Usir grasped the bars, and the shackles clinked against them. ‘But I have something missing inside. My heart beats strong still, but my lungs, my liver, my guts, they vanish at times before reappearing weaker than ever. Before being stuck here I drank that palm wine. Do you know why?’ He didn’t wait for a reply. ‘It washes that hollowness in my belly, keeps it pure. I’m becoming more and more like the preserved bodies they talked about in Sharm el-Sheikh.’ A step closer to perfection. But he couldn’t cleanse himself in the cell. ‘I need more wine.’

Gaspar’s raised an eyebrow. ‘He gave clear instructions against helping you in any away.’

‘I know master said that, but─’

‘And I’ve been bringing food and water down, despite the risk for both of us, but I can’t steal the wine.’ Gaspar’s features were locked in resolve. ‘Only the plague doctor has some. She’ll know if it goes missing and I can’t ask her.

She’ll know it’s for you.’

Even though as a scribe he was a valued member of the flagship, Gaspar was too stuck in his own mortality to rise above emotions like fear. Usir didn’t insist. ‘Do you know what I saw first, when we finally got to land?’ He leaned back again and scratched the reddened skin under his manacles. ‘A woman tied to a post on the harbour. I didn’t understand why back then, and I still remember how her dress was soaked by the water, how it clung to her pale skin with the rising tide. It drooped from her shoulders because of the weight of the water, and part of her undergarment was showing, though no one helped. They were punishing a murderer by drowning her, so they waited until the water was high enough to kill her. Why would I want Paradise with a God who condones that?’

‘Crimes must be punished.’

‘Yes. Like mine.’

Gaspar turned his head. ‘Usir.’

‘And yours.’

‘Usir.’ Gaspar’s voice was low, and he sounded tired.

‘But they won’t punish you. Or any other highborn.’ Usir didn’t need the confirmation of Gaspar’s silence to know the truth. ‘They sin and then confess to the priest.’

‘Your own people practice slavery.’ Gaspar’s voice was chiding.

Usir rolled his shoulders back, stretching. ‘Yes.’

‘The Bible approves it. That’s why the Pope reaffirmed it as a divine act in the Pontifex.’

‘I can’t read.’

‘I know,’ Gaspar said softly. ‘I’ve spoken in your favour. The Captain seemed in a good mood. They might release you.’

The cockroach was back. It tried to climb the wall before falling back down. Usir flicked it with his toes. ‘Not without punishing me.’

‘No.’ Gaspar admitted. ‘But it wouldn’t mean death.’

Usir laughed without humour. ‘Maybe they’ll cut a few limbs instead of keelhauling me.’

Gaspar’s larger hand covered Usir’s, and his thumb stroked skin roughened by years of pulling ropes and scrubbing floors. ‘They won’t.’

Usir tightened his fingers on his. ‘They’ve already started.’

The pain inside his ragged breeches had dulled to a throbbing ache, and it bothered him now as much as a bee sting would. That part of him had been discarded overboard, and after the agony had come relief. All of Osiris’s body parts had been retrieved by his wife Isis, except for his zib, which had been eaten by the Nile fish. Usir’s was somewhere in the Pacific.

Another step towards godhood.

‘I’ll ask the doctor for more ointment.’ Gaspar made to leave but Usir didn’t let go of his hand.

‘No need.’

‘You’re bleeding again.’

Usir glanced down at the dark spot on his lap. ‘It’s dry. I haven’t bled since yesterday.’

‘Liar.’ But Gaspar didn’t insist. ‘I couldn’t bring you more food.’

‘I don’t need to eat.’ Usir moved slightly, his back scraping against the wall, so that he could show Gaspar the tankard full of water and the small piece of salted beef still on the floor.

Gaspar frowned. ‘Why haven’t you eaten?’

‘It’s useless.’ He shrugged again.

‘Because you think starvation is a better death?’

Because gods don’t eat, he thought but didn’t say aloud.

When he remained silent, Gaspar clenched his free fist and banged it against the bars. Usir jumped, and tried to remove his hand at last, but Gaspar didn’t allow it.

‘You want to believe you’re already dead because then you don’t have to be afraid.’ His voice was harsh. ‘But you’re alive and I’m trying to keep you that way. Why do you want to rush your death?’

Usir fought Gaspar’s hold again and finally managed to slip his hand away. ‘How can a dead man die?’

He then pulled at a thread in his shirt and moved until his spine was flat against the wall. The moisture clinging to it seeped into his clothes and a shiver broke down his back. He picked up the salted meat from the floor and scraped the salt with a short fingernail before putting his finger into his mouth. Water coated his tongue, even if his skin only tasted like rust and a sourness he couldn’t give a name to.

‘Why do you keep doing that?’ Gaspar broke the silence.

‘Salt preserves the body.’ Usir wondered why he didn’t feel hollowness, but pain in his belly.

Gaspar’s eyes followed the uneaten piece of beef until it landed on the floor again. ‘The first time we met you pretended to be deaf, remember?’

Light hit one of the harpoons placed against the wall behind Gaspar, the yellow glow making the metal appear incandescent, as if it had been held above a fire.

‘The old Egyptians used to push a hot rod inside the nostrils of the dead until it reached the brain.’ Usir didn’t know how to solve that problem with his own body. ‘Scrambled it into pieces, made it easier to remove it. Only my heart can stay, because I’ll need it for the final judgment in the afterlife.’

‘Why won’t you stop talking like that?’

‘I do remember, of course.’ Usir blinked before looking at Gaspar’s distorted face under the bright light. ‘I was loading the wine barrels into the ship. You were counting them.’

Gaspar’s mouth curled. ‘You worked very hard to ignore me.’

‘I wasn’t sure my master would let me speak to anyone else.’ Usir was the one to offer his hand now and Gaspar held it. ‘You didn’t give up talking to me, following me everywhere.’

‘Not a lot of places to hide in a ship.’

Usir traced a birthmark on Gaspar’s wrist with his free hand, then the bluish, raised veins on his forearm.

The smile that graced Gaspar’s lips faded. ‘I can’t visit tomorrow.’

Usir swallowed a protest, but didn’t speak as Gaspar continued.

‘We’re about to pass San Pablo Island, and their main interest is to glimpse land. No one will come for you now.’

Gaspar undid their hold, and the warmth he left behind quickly grew cold as Usir followed his darkening figure up the stairs. The cockroach scurried out of sight once more, leaving him truly alone to stare out the porthole. The dusty blue colour of the water reminded him of the Nile. It was autumn when he saw it for the first time, so the river was receding and leaving silt and dead fish behind. The canals made by the labourers were filled with water and the crops thrived that year.

Life finding its way through putrefaction and decay.

Usir lifted his shirt as far as the chains allowed. His belly was sunken, and his skin, instead of a cinnamon tint, was stretched over bones like drying papyrus. His protruding navel seemed to retreat more and more inside him with every breath he took, as if it was being inhaled as well. His ribs made him think of elephant ivory, but when he trailed his fingers over them, they reminded him more of a qanun.

He was losing human shape.

He would need to be stuffed with linen to preserve his original form. When Usir pulled at the hem of his shirt, the flimsy fabric ripped easily in a ribbon. His mouth was too dry and didn’t allow him to ingest it, so he licked the salt off the beef, fighting the urge to bite down at the smoky taste. He managed to swallow part of the fabric when his mouth flooded with saliva once more, but the rest wouldn’t go down. Usir pulled it out, and it chafed his throat as it climbed up.

The sound of booted steps woke him up. He turned his head towards the stairs, but the smile already cracking his dry lips froze. His master took a key from his oversized coat, opened the cell door, and unshackled him.

‘Out.’

The word was as rough as the creak of metal. His master’s clothes lacked the caked filth of the sailors’, as he always avoided soiling the fine quality wool, and his boots weren’t as scuffed as Gaspar’s. He clinked the key against the metal as he waited for Usir to leave the cell.

Usir crawled out and stumbled when he tried to get up, his useless legs tingling with needles. His bony knees hit the floor with a thump, but his master pulled him up and dragged him to the stairs. His breeches rasped against his sore groin, stings of pain shooting down his legs and curling his toes. The cherry-red stain on his trousers grew larger. The thought of dying didn’t fill him with fear, contrary to what Gaspar believed; it meant he’d complete his transition and be rewarded.

There were no portholes on the corridors, so they were as dark as he expected the underworld to be. Musty, damp and reeking of putrid food and unwashed feet. Osiris had also been forced to walk in darkness until he was transformed into something else, an entity in control of life and death.
Ra’s light blinded him for a moment after he climbed to the deck, an augur of his next life. A tribunal of forty-two divine judges would also await him. Usir’s life had not conformed to the principles of Ma’at, since he had been baptised at seven years old, but he had no faith in the Christians’ God. He would share in Osiris’s eternal life.

A shadow, too thin to belong to the sails, swayed on the floor of the deck. Usir followed the movement up, where a familiar shape hung from a yardarm. Gaspar’s pale face was now purple and bloated like a plum. A thick rope encircled his neck. The collar of his shirt was caught in it, so the hem rose above the cord holding his breeches, revealing the pasty skin of his stomach and the trail of dark hair below his navel.

The emptiness Usir had been feeling for months, the assurance that he was becoming as hollow as the preserved bodies, faded. The palm wine he’d taken to cleanse himself turned solid, weighing him down until he knew he was as alive as Gaspar’s had been not long ago. His heart pushed life through his body again, and instead of the transcendence he expected, he felt his lungs work again with a sharp inhale, his stomach clamp on itself, his guts stir and churn. They shattered his godhood.

‘Why?’ he whispered.

‘He committed a sin against God.’ His master’s voice was callous.

‘I did too.’

‘And here’s your punishment. He can be replaced, the Captain has other officers who can read.’ His hand tightened. ‘I, on the other hand, will not waste reais by buying another slave, so you’ll learn your lesson from this.’

‘He was a nobleman.’

‘So am I. But here he was a sailor, and I outranked him.’

Gaspar’s swinging shade reminded Usir of another. The moving shadow of a quill on vellum, as he tried to position it properly. Usir had wanted to learn how to read and write, so Gaspar took him to his small room, where a single candle was enough to shine light on his cot and piles of books. Gaspar had sat behind him, his chin resting on Usir’s shoulder, his warm breath tickling his neck. Usir broke the feather before writing a single word.

Gaspar was patient, whispering instructions in his ear. His chest warmed Usir’s back, while his greasy hair brushed against Usir’s face every time he moved. He didn’t mind. The lice wouldn’t fester on his shaved head.

‘I give up.’ Usir had nearly thrown it at a wall.

Gaspar laughed. ‘It’s only difficult at first.’ He dipped his finger in the inkpot and touched it to Usir’s bare chest, who shuddered at the cold liquid. Gaspar continued down his lower belly.

‘What is it?’ The black symbols didn’t make any sense to Usir, and yet they reminded him of the language of his homeland.

‘Ana baħibbak.’

As an answer, Usir turned his head until his lips grazed Gaspar’s jaw, his stubble prickling him. He smelled of sweat and ink.

But his master’s voice poisoned Usir’s memories as he shoved him forward, away from Gaspar. ‘Back to work.’

Teresa Garanhel loves the written word in all forms, be it fiction writing or copywriting – and her passion for travelling, mythology, and history often fuels her stories. In her free time, she can be found reading, gaming, listening to music, and having long chats over a pint at the local pub.

Picture credits: Shawn Kelly